July 23, 2012 at 7:38 PM

Santa Fe Opera Review: ‘Maometto II’

"The July 18 performance I attended, the second, was ravishing musically and vivid dramatically"

By Craig Smith

Critical Faculties

Craig Smith answered an ad for singers for the Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s first season way back when – OK, 1983 – and has been here happily ever since. He is a writer, editor, journalist, arts critic, general wordsmith, and wannabe polymath.

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It's rare to attend an opera performance worthy only of praise. The art form is so demanding that you can almost always find something to kvetch about. A welcome exception is now playing in town: The Santa Fe Opera's production of Rossini's "Maometto II." The July 18 performance I attended, the second, was ravishing musically and vivid dramatically. Even some overdone moments in director David Alden's stage pictures were swallowed up in the general glory.  Suffice to say that a three-and-a-half hour opera with two long acts went by in a flash—a triumph for the new critical edition SFO premiered here, and of course the performers.

The story is standard opera—a complex situation reduced to broad yet human strokes. In this case, the conflict is between love and duty, except that duty is duped for quite a bit of time before the heroine, Anna, realizes that her secretive lover is none other than Maometto, the Muslim commander besieging her city.

Also in the equation is her father, Paolo, commander of the beleaguered forces, and an accompanying general, Calbo, who is in love with Anna. Her father is determined to get his child married to Calbo as extra protection in case he, Paolo, bites the dust during conflict. What will happen if Calbo also goes down is never quite gone into. I admit I love these operatic inconsistencies. On the other hand, Paolo does give Anna a dagger with which to off herself before the Muslims can offer her harm, so I guess he is thinking ahead.

Luca Pisaroni was compelling and glorious in the title role, rendering Rossini's complex coloratura with panache while imbuing it with real theatrical communication. Powerful bass-baritone singing with a focused and ample voice; beautiful artistry and character projection; and a handsome face and figure into the bargain. You could certainly see why Leah Crocetto's Anna had been swept off her feet by this mystery man - though again to note an operatic plot detail, Maometto pretended to be somebody else when wooing her.

And how was Leah/Anna? Phenomenal. Crocetto, who won the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition last year, was able to meet and exceed Rossini's Olympian sonic wishes —which are wild, since he penned the role for one of the best sopranos of his day and an exponent of his pieces, Isabella Colbran. From high to low, piano to forte, chest voice to floated high notes, lightning-fast scales to mellifluous melody, Crocetto had it all. This singer is the real thing. Dramatically ,she was all over the map, but in a good way: she expressed the character's conflicting feelings believably both vocally and physically. Her small gestures were as apt as her big moments, and when she and Pisaroni were rolling on the floor in the seduction scene, the temperature went perceptibly up.

Tenor Bruce Sledge, who made a likeable and serviceable Almaviva in SFO's Barber of Seville some years ago, has grown immensely as both a singer and performer: the voice remains fleet yet has increased in size, and his concentration within the character was amazingly consistent. Mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, as Calbo, tossed Rossini's lines off with easy abandon and a powerful, focused, rather curdled tone. But not every singer pours cream out of her vocal jug. Sometimes buttermilk, with its tang and body, is just as satisfying. My only theatrical quibble with her was that she had an odd habit of cocking one hip to the side from time to time. It made her look sciatic rather than noble.

In the pit, chief conductor Frederic Chaslin mined the score for its jewels with cunning and artistry, stringing them out along the web of sound with precise judgment. As a result, the many ensembles and arias grew in stature emotionally as well as musically, as the piece built to its unbelievably florid heights. The players responded with a will: Chaslin has made such strides with this group in a short time that they are playing now not just at a committedly clean level, but consistently well (so far) for every conductor and every piece. No small feat.

The production itself is handsome: set designer-costumer Jon Morell has gone to town on a quasi-First Empire France setting, which mixes Napoleonic Grecian revival elements with early 19th-century clothing in striking colors. Duane Schuler's lighting is magnificent, making superb use of cast shadows as well as blinding sun-like moments. As mentioned, Alden indulges in a few overelaborate moments and some that were I presume unintentionally comic —such as when the female chorus appeared all draped in yashmaks in the harem scene, to sing a ditty that wouldn't have been out of place in Barber. By the way, both the women and the men of the Apprentice Artists continued to sing like gangbusters here: so far, that's three operas for three for the chorus and its director Susanne Sheston.

Maometto II repeats at 8:30 p.m. July 14, 18 and 27, and 8 p.m. Aug. 2, 7 and 16. Call 986-5900 for tickets - and soon.

Photos by Ken Howard.

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